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Decolonising research with black communities: developing equitable and ethical relationships between academic and community stakeholders

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Families, Relationships and Societies • vol 10 • no 1 • 189196 • © Policy Press 2021
Print ISSN 20467435 • Online ISSN 20467443 •
Accepted for publication 12 January 2021 • First published online 10 February 2021
open space
Decolonising research with black communities:
developing equitable and ethical relationships
between academic and community stakeholders
Sadie Goddard-Durant,
Brock University, Canada
Jane Ann Sieunarine,
Black community member, Canada
Andrea Doucet,
Brock University, Canada
Key words black communities • collaborative • relational research • ethical research •
decolonising research
To cite this article: Goddard-Durant, S., Sieunarine, J. and Doucet, A. (2021) Decolonising
research with black communities: developing equitable and ethical relationships between
academic and community stakeholders, Families, Relationships and Societies, vol 10, no 1,
189196, DOI: 10.1332/204674321X16104823811079
In this International Decade for People of African Descent,1 the spotlight in Canada
and in other Western countries has turned to understanding and documenting the
lived experiences of black communities. This interest by scholars is perhaps even
greater over the last few months with the heightened attention around the world as the
Black Lives Matter movements have highlighted anti-black racism in North America.
However, reective of the wider social injustices against black persons, there have
been harmful relationships between researchers and black communities historically
that has led to black communities mistrusting researchers (Davis etal, 2010; Schar
etal, 2010). These histories have parallels with critiques of the sustained damages of
white settler scholarship on, but not with, Indigenous communities where, as Linda
Tuhaiwi Smith famously noted that ‘“research” is probably one of the dirtiest words
in the indigenous world’s vocabulary’ (Smith, 2012: 1). Moreover, more and more
attention has been given to ethical research practices that go beyond simply getting
ethical approval from research ethics boards (Tuck and Guishard, 2013; Doucet, 2018a).
In particular, Indigenous communities and scholars who conduct research with them,
and to a lesser extent black communities and scholars, have been calling for more
attention to be paid to the nature and quality of the relationships that researchers
are building with communities who have historically been oppressed in research
and in society generally (Gibbs, 2001; Semali etal, 2007; Napoli, 2019). Specically,
Families, Relationships and Societies
© Policy Press 2021
SPECIAL ISSUE • Relationality in family and intimate practices
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members of these communities are calling for research relationships to be transparent,
trustworthy, respectful and reciprocal (Schar etal, 2010; Tobias etal, 2013). While
there is a growing body of research on how to build collaborative relationships
with Indigenous communities globally, less is documented about developing these
relationships with black communities and black families in particular. Such insight
is necessary at this point in history if we are to decolonise the research process with
black families and communities – that is, if we are to highlight their experiences
using research processes which do not stereotype, revictimise and marginalise them.
In this article we reect on our recent experiences of university scholars working
with a black community organisation in one of Canada’s largest cities to conduct
research on the experiences and needs of young black mothers. It is within this
context that we share our experience of fostering a collaborative, equitable and ethical
relationship between a variety of stakeholders – a young black mother of two (Jane
Ann), two black sta members from an Afrocentric community-based organisation
who worked with youth/black mothers (Kim and Princilia), a black Caribbean PhD
student new to Canada (Sadie) and a white Canadian professor (Andrea). We outline
ve strategies key to initiating and growing the relationship between team members
in the early phase.
Respecting the implications of exploitative histories for building
new relationships
Sadie had extensive experience of working with black communities in Barbados
and wanted to continue this work in Canada. She had used her professional network
to initiate contact with the Afrocentric community-based organisation which had
deep roots within the black community in the city. In her introductory email, Sadie
outlined her experience and her values in doing work with black communities by
means of facilitating nuanced representation in research, and providing evidence which
communities could draw on to advocate for and design interventions and policies to
address systemic barriers and structural injustices. She invited discussion about the
community-based organization’s interest in understanding young black mothers. In
line with the ndings of other researchers (see Frerichs etal, 2017; Wang etal, 2017) ,
it had been her experience that authenticity and transparency were necessary for
communities that had long histories of abusive interactions with researchers. This
approach was on target. The director of the community organisation agreed to an
exploratory meeting in which they stressed their need for transparency, reciprocity and
emphasis on relationship building. This requirement for entering into a collaboration
was in keeping with their Afrocentric approach to service delivery. This requirement of
the research relationship was also a consequence of their own exploitative experiences
in the past with researchers; this requirement has been also raised by other scholars
as key to building successful partnerships with racially marginalised communities
(see Tobias etal, 2013).
It was in the context of this history, and the desire to maximise an Afrocentric
approach, that Sadie and Andrea made the decision that Andrea should take a more
behind-the-scenes role in the eldwork stages of this project. This was a dicult
decision for Andrea because, although she was the ‘senior’ member of the research
team, her approach to research was one of resisting divisions of labour between
team members and to participate in all aspects of the research processes, including
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Decolonising research with black communities
eldwork. Thus, Andrea’s role was to meet with Sadie after her meetings in the
community, to participate in the backstage work of developing the interview guide
and visual methodology with the team, adapting a version of the ‘listening guide’
narrative approach to data analysis (Doucet, 2018b) for this context, and guiding the
team through team data analysis sessions. This experience was instructive for her in
that it highlighted how, in some cases, a desire to enact non-hierarchical and ethical
research relationships can actually mean moving out of the way so that ethical research
relationships can be cultivated.
In the spirit of building ethical research relations, Sadie and the community
organisation director also had discussions about what the research team and the
organisation and community could and/or should realistically gain from participating
in the project and partnership. Access to a community to research, money, prestige,
career advancement, skills, knowledge, and source data for programme and policy
development were all valuable and likely outcomes. As one way to ensure reciprocity,
it was agreed that Sadie and Andrea would oer capacity building by way of training
in research methods to the organisation. This would yield two outcomes for the
organisation: (1) they would be on their way to reducing their reliance on external
research expertise in the long term; and (2) they would move closer to fullling their
mandate to be a centre of research excellence for health in the black community.
Sta would be able to develop their research competence. Two sta members, Kim
and Princilia, came on board as part of this capacity-building component of the
research partnership. We had the beginnings of a working group! We began with
weekly meetings, which we tacitly agreed would be dedicated to getting to know
each other. We shared about our professional and personal backgrounds – work
and educational histories, experiences with research, our personal and professional
interests, and goals, hobbies and family lives. These exchanges paved the way for us
beginning to trust each other.
Ultimately, this research partnership was started because there was an
acknowledgement from the researcher and those being researched (as represented
at this stage by the community-based organisation) about the reality of abusive
relationships typically fostered by researchers with black communities and with this
black community in particular. There was also a commitment to do better on the part
of the researchers, and a willingness on the part of the community-based organisation
to be open to brokering relationships with researchers in spite of past experiences.
While seemingly elementary, these positions were critical to forging a relationship
between these scholars and this black community.
Getting to know the community: constructing and dissecting
narratives of anti-black racism
As a part of our early working group ‘getting-to-know-you’ meetings, Kim and
Princilia shared stories with Sadie about the young women/mothers with whom they
worked. These discussions occurred through the lens of anti-black racism because this
characterised the daily living conditions of the community. How did anti-black racism
play out in the lives of these black women? What systemic injustices and structural
inequalities did they encounter in their daily lives? What resources did they have at
their disposal to navigate these? What role did this community-based organisation
play in helping black women navigate these barriers? What role did Kim and Princilia
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Sadie Goddard-Durant et al
play in this work? What would this mean for how the community received their
interest in brokering a new type of relationship?
Respecting that our positionality to anti-black racism would also inuence our
relationships with each other and the community, we also reected on our own
experiences of anti-black racism as black women who occupied spaces which have
historically been predominantly occupied by white persons in Canada. We reected on
how our privilege as educated professionals left us with vastly dierent experiences of
anti-black racism from our community and access to resources to navigate them. This
reection on our shared insider-outsider position served to deepen our relationship
as we were often ‘the only’ in our professional journeys up to this point.
Community engagement: building community trust and interest
Community engagement was a cornerstone of how initiatives were developed at the
community-based organisation. As such it was agreed that Sadie would participate
in community events towards gaining rst-hand insight into the community’s daily
living conditions; providing the community with an opportunity to get to know her;
and ultimately building a foundation from which to engage community members
about their ideas for the direction the research project should take. In the end, Kim
was able to vouch for Sadie’s commitment and genuineness to a young mother
from the community whom she knew and bring her onboard the team. Jane Ann’s
personality was key to her membership. Jane Ann was accustomed to self-advocacy
and was passionate about confronting anti-black racism in her life and that of other
young mothers in the community. She readily shared her life experiences and
broached discussions about what this would mean for conducting research with
young black mothers. She willingly engaged in the discussions the working group
had been having from the outset about who they were and their positionality to the
community and research project. Eorts to engage a second mother were unsuccessful.
However, this failure to secure a second partnership with a community member was
insightful in and of itself. Around this time, in this community, young black mothers
were facing heightened community violence against their male relatives and partners
on top of their own struggles. They simply did not have the emotional availability
or time to engage in an exercise that did not immediately relieve their stress and
grief, and which was occurring within a context that experience had taught them
was unfair to them.
Being open and vulnerable was essential to forging our relationship. While
not explicitly voiced, in essence, Sadie, as an educated middle-class woman from
the academy, needed to ‘prove’ herself as someone safe to be given access to this
community. This makes sense in light of the long history of researcher exploitation
of black communities. This was required even though Sadie was a member of the
wider black community herself. She was required to navigate that insider-outsider
role and luckily, Kim and Princila had navigated the same challenge and were willing
to oer their insights.
On reection, there were two key strategies we employed to recognise, acknowledge
and navigate the challenges inherent in growing our research collaboration between
two academics and a black community, each with our own agendas, constraints,
privilege and relationship to power. These challenges proved to be opportunities to
grow the relationship closer to what we aspired it to be. We discuss these next.
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Decolonising research with black communities
Deprioritising the research process and prioritising the relationship
to build capacity
It is easy to pay lip service to the idea of engaging in capacity building within a
research partnership. What might the relationship look like when academics genuinely
engage in building the research capacity of the peer researchers? Training Jane Ann
and Kim and Princilia as peer researchers automatically meant that the research
process would go at a much slower pace. While research was Sadie’s training and job,
this was not the case for the others. Kim and Princilia had some graduate training in
research while Jane Ann had none. Hence teaching had to occur, in a way which met
all their learning needs, pitched at a level that everyone could understand but not feel
frustrated with or alienated by. This slowed pace of research has been documented
as a factor in researchers abandoning the values of community-based participatory
research (Stanton, 2014).
In addition, while we agreed to carve out time to meet weekly, Kim and Princilia
worked in an underresourced, dynamic environment where they were often doing
crisis intervention. Jane Ann’s engagement with dierent systems relating to her
children and her own development meant that oftentimes her schedule was not her
own to dictate; in addition, encounters with anti-black racism in her daily life could
easily derail her day and sap her emotional energy. Honouring the relationships we
were building, which were characterised by respect and authenticity, meant that Sadie
had to resist the temptation to forego training the others to do tasks and to take them
on herself to move the project along. In an environment of rigid timelines set by
funders, this can be a real and strong temptation. It also meant that Kim and Princilia
had to advocate for space within their work days to engage with training material.
We found ourselves building a check-in time into the start of our meetings so that
everyone could debrief and receive support, the aim being to place the ‘outside world’
to one side and engage in research work for the allocated time. Engaging in capacity
building, therefore, provided an opportunity for us to practise empathy, a willingness
to compromise and negotiate, and exibility with each other.
Lack of resources – in particular time, money, research expertise and emotional
energy – are realities of working with black community organisations and communities.
It was important for the working group members to acknowledge this and accept the
implications for the work which needed to be done. This required us to intentionally
prioritise and nurture our relationship with each other to avoid frustration about
the slowed progress of the project or a sense of the work being too demanding and
overwhelming. Were we consistently successful? No. However, naming this challenge
and unpacking its implications and nding an agreed-on way of working through
it as an ongoing reality proved quite helpful to it not derailing the collaboration.
Sharing voice and power within the working group
Another key strategy to growing the relationship between academics and the
community was ensuring that each stakeholder’s voice was heard and honoured. All
stakeholders on the working group agreed that it was important that we collectively
recognise and value the dierent expertise everyone brought to the project – including
knowledge of how to do research, knowledge of the lived experiences of young black
mothers, and knowledge of supporting black community members in navigating
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Sadie Goddard-Durant et al
systemic barriers and injustices. But what would this look like in practice? One
aspect of this was painstakingly making space during meetings for everyone to set
the agenda and share their ideas and concerns. As we got deeper into the work and
assigned tasks to do outside meetings, sharing voice also involved recognising our
diering relationships to power in the various contexts in which we operated, and
using that dierential access to power for the benet of the group’s goals and/or a
given member’s developmental needs. Connected to this was the academics learning
what it meant to be an ally as opposed to a saviour – that is, mutually unpacking
problems and brainstorming solutions instead of taking over to x the problem.
Valuing each voice equally also meant we each had to be open to recognising and
acknowledging our mistakes in the work and in our interactions with each other,
and taking the responsibility to correct these errors.
Growing our relationship as a working group called for a certain level of reexivity,
vulnerability, exibility and empathy. It was important that we created an environment
of shared and equal power, perhaps because we were all coming from dierent
experiences of personal and professional power. It meant that Sadie, and to a lesser
extent Kim and Princilia, had to relinquish some of their power in their interaction
with Jane Ann, and Jane Ann had to learn to take up her power. It also meant we had
to acknowledge and set aside our preconceived notions about each other’s privilege
and power and learn how to support each other more authentically. As black women
in a world that seeks in multiple ways to render us powerless, this was signicant that
we could support each other in being empowered.
Concluding thoughts
In this article, we reected on our journey of building a relationship to facilitate a
research project on the experiences and needs of young black mothers in one of
Canada’s urban cities, and we shared some key strategies which researchers seeking
to work with black families might consider in developing equitable and ethical
research relationships with them. Given the exploitative relationships of the past, it
was crucial that we named and grappled with what was needed by the scholars and
this black community, and by extension the young black mothers and their families
whom we wished to access to build intimacy, trust and cooperation with each other.
It was important that we explicitly considered the diering experiences of anti-black
racism in our lives; continuously committed to proving our willingness to create
a new power dynamic with each other; and that we intentionally tended to our
relationships, especially in times when it was easier to deprioritise these relationships
while prioritising research progress and outputs. Ultimately, we were able to grow
a relationship that successfully confronted and overcame many of the shortcomings
of and documented barriers in implementing the values of community-based
participatory research with racially marginalised communities.
1 The United Nations General Assembly declared 2015-2025 as the ‘International Decade
for People of African Descent’ in recognition that people of African descent are a ‘distinct
group whose human rights must be promoted and protected’. The theme for the decade
is ‘People of African descent: recognition, justice and development’.
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Decolonising research with black communities
This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
of Canada under grant number 435-2014-1623.
Conict of interest
The authors declare that there is no conict of interest.
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Sustaining collaborations between community-based organization leaders and academic researchers in community-engaged research (CEnR) in the service of decreasing health inequities necessitates understanding the collaborations from an inter-organizational perspective. We assessed the perspectives of community leaders and university-based researchers conducting community-engaged research in a medium-sized city with a history of community-university tension. Our research team, included experts in CEnR and organizational theory, used qualitative methods and purposeful, snowball sampling to recruit local participants and performed key informant interviews from July 2011–May 2012. A community-based researcher interviewed 11 community leaders, a university-based researcher interviewed 12 university-based researchers. We interviewed participants until we reached thematic saturation and performed analyses using the constant comparative method. Unifying themes characterizing community leaders and university-based researchers' relationships on the inter-organizational level include: 1) Both groups described that community-engaged university-based researchers are exceptions to typical university culture; 2) Both groups described that the interpersonal skills university-based researchers need for CEnR require a change in organizational culture and training; 3) Both groups described skepticism about the sustainability of a meaningful institutional commitment to community-engaged research 4) Both groups described the historical impact on research relationships of race, power, and privilege, but only community leaders described its persistent role and relevance in research relationships. Challenges to community-academic research partnerships include researcher interpersonal skills and different perceptions of the importance of organizational history. Solutions to improve research partnerships may include transforming university culture and community-university discussions on race, power, and privilege.
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Community-academic research partnerships aim to build stakeholder trust in order to improve the reach and translation of health research, but there is limited empirical research regarding effective ways to build trust. This multisite study was launched to identify similarities and differences among stakeholders' perspectives of antecedents to trust in research partnerships. In 2013-2014, we conducted a mixed-methods concept mapping study with participants from three major stakeholder groups who identified and rated the importance of different antecedents of trust on a 5-point Likert-type scale. Study participants were community members (n = 66), health care providers (n = 38), and academic researchers (n = 44). All stakeholder groups rated "authentic communication" and "reciprocal relationships" the highest in importance. Community members rated "communication/methodology to resolve problems" (M = 4.23, SD = 0.58) significantly higher than academic researchers (M = 3.87, SD = 0.67) and health care providers (M = 3.89, SD = 0.62; p < .01) and had different perspectives regarding the importance of issues related to "sustainability." The importance of communication and relationships across stakeholders indicates the importance of colearning processes that involve the exchange of knowledge and skills. The differences uncovered suggest specific areas where attention and skill building may be needed to improve trust within partnerships. More research on how partnerships can improve communication specific to problem solving and sustainability is merited.
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To advance socially just research, scholars—including those who utilize qualitative methodologies—must confront the colonizing reputation that frames such work in Indigenous communities. This article explores the potential for Community-Based Participatory Research to guide the re-envisioning of mainstream conceptions of scholarly control to cross epistemological borders between theory and practice. A project that endeavored to engage Native participants throughout the research process provides context for the discussion of ongoing challenges and emerging possibilities. This work holds implications for participatory research design and implementation in cross-cultural contexts, especially as connected to shifting decolonizing theory to practice.
Given the context of colonialism, genocide and racism that surrounds Native communities in the U.S., this author suggests that arts-based practitioners consider an Indigenous methodology as an ethical and culturally respectful approach to the needs of Native people. In this article, the author describes Indigenous methodology, which includes a regard for Native sovereignty and critical analysis of systems that may still cause harm in Native community. The author also discusses excerpts and outcomes from applying an Indigenous methodology in collaboration with Native community along with further ethical considerations.
This article outlines a community-based participatory research strategy called Community Driven Development (CDD). This approach strives for excellence in bridging the gap between academic departments and rural communities by shifting the culture of the academy toward greater community engagement. Taking rural Tanzania as a case study, researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Tumaini University, as well as residents of Leguruki and Chekereni, work together to define and conduct research to improve wellbeing and promote sustainability of indigenous communities while employing methodologies that recognize communities as equal partners. In this collaboration, scholars entered into a dialogue with rural community residents to exchange ideas about pertinent local beliefs and values, traditional practices, and folk knowledge, and to better understand how residents apply their knowledge systems to address the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and policies affecting their wellbeing.